Tuesday, September 09, 2003

There is an interesting image in Barbara Guest’s excellent biography of Hilda Doolittle, Herself Defined, of imagism as a movement after Ezra Pound had moved on to join Wyndham Lewis in declaring Vorticism. The image Guest leaves the reader with is one of a lone major Imagiste, H.D., a second-but-inferior entrepreneurial huckster in Amy Lowell, and a handful of second-tier poets of the likes of John Gould Fletcher and Richard Aldington, having to carry on with no clear sense of direction. Guest outlines the ways in which the Imagism of these latter poets was invariably compromised – either too Georgian or just too muddled. The implication is that once Pound turned his attention elsewhere, Imagism lost its “head.” Ultimately, and Guest is fairly explicit about this, there would be only one “true” Imagist: H.D.

Which opens, for me, the deeper question of what an –ism can possibly be. The idea of poetry organized in some fashion around a common purpose necessarily implies the possibility of shared motives. That’s a concept that comes more directly from French painting (& secondarily French symbolist poetry) than it does the tradition of Anglo-American letters. Still there are sporadic foretastes, including the mid-19th century squabbling between the Young Americans and the anglophiles of the School of Quietude. Underlying this concept is some sense of how a “common purpose” might be characterized. Does it require, for example, a defining statement of principles – a manifesto for want of a better term – and the adoption of a name? Guest is clear that Pound, for example, was less of a namer of movements than he was an appropriator of names, such as T.E. Hume’s imagism or Lewis’ Vorticism. Even Objectivism, although Guest doesn’t mention it, might be described in these same terms – a name & an accompanying statement of principles, primarily put forward (at least in 1932) for the purposes of marketing. The need thus was external to the poetry, indeed was imposed on the poets by Zukofsky only at the insistence of Harriet Monroe.

An –ism of this order strikes me as being essentially hollow, aimed less at the poets than at some externalized audience. Contrast this with, for example, the most pronounced ism of the 1950s, Projectivism. While Olson, Creeley, Dorn, Duncan & Sorrentino all wrote substantive works of critical writing – and some of Olson’s in particular embody the rhetoric of a manifesto – they’re really aimed at one another. What we are reading in their works is much more of an internal discussion – they’re goading one another to write better & to take greater chances in their work. One sees this also, I think, in the relatively few critical works to emerge from the New York School (O’Hara’s “Personism”) or the so-called Beat Scene (primarily Kerouac’s statements on prosody & spontaneous writing). Indeed, the Projectivists never once in their writings ever called themselves by that name & the Beats were accorded that moniker by a San Francisco gossip columnist, Herb Caen. “Personism,” the only true –ism of that decade, employed that term strictly as a joke. Even the term New York School, which was employed only by its second generation, was used half as a joke. While the marketing aspect of a group brand was not altogether absent with the NY School, any more than it was with the Beats, the focus was much more decisively around the question of internal discourse. The –isms of the 1950s were thus more communities in their orientation than the ones of the teens or the 1930s. And, no surprise, it was this aspect of these “movements” that I think appealed most to the poets who came to be known in the 1970s as language poets.

It’s not that Pound wasn’t interested in communicating with other poets, but his rather frenetic social organizing never moved toward a community because that was never its purpose.